The Truth About Customer Service In Germany

Credit: : zachtrek

Customer service in Germany gets a pretty bad rap.  There are thousands of blog posts, forums posts and social media updates about how terrible customer service is here and how rude everyone working in any customer service position is. From my experience, the truth is far different. I feel that these negative views about customer service come mainly from Americans who haven’t experienced customer service in any other country but here in Germany and in the US. American customer service is far different from the customer service in my home country of Australia and that I’ve experienced in my travels around the world. People working in customer service in the US are desperately trying to prove that they are providing good customer service that they go a little overboard.  As soon as you walk into a shop you are besieged by someone whose face is plastered with a huge fake smile asking you a million questions about what you are seeking.  I find it extremely overwhelming to be honest. Here in Germany, people let you shop in peace.  If you want to know something, you find someone and ask. That tends to be perceived as bad customer service by those knowing no different than the US model.

To be honest, and again these views come only from my personal experiences, customer service in Germany is pretty good.  Yes, of course, you encounter a whole range of people working in customer service from the extremely helpful and friendly to the downright rude and insulting but that is the same as in any other country. On the whole, people here are willing to help you if you don’t be demanding or rude. There is some negativity if you refuse to speak any German and insist on only speaking English. But let’s be real here, would you expect in the US a minimum wage worker to be able to speak a second language? Then why do you expect it here in Germany? Yes, kids do get taught English at school but it doesn’t mean that they actually learn how to speak it with any great deal of confidence, if at all. Use what German you do know and try and laugh off your mistakes or at least don’t get visibility upset or stressed about it and the customer service you get back will be a thousand times better than if you insist on speaking English. Hell, I even had a running joke that lasted for months on end with my local bakery staff that stemmed from my colossal language fuck-up when ordering one day. Germans get how hard their language is to learn and they will, on the whole, give you a lot of patience and understanding (and sometimes help) if you just give speaking it a go. If you are a regular there, they will also remember you, especially if you are the only one who speaks German with an accent and you can build up a really friendly rapport. I have inadvertently trained four different sets of bakery staff over the years to remember my breakfast order including the current dour-faced grumpy one who will even grace me with a rare smile that the German customers most definitely do not get. Seriously, a smile and a friendly attitude will get you better customer service than a frown and being a bitch will.  Germans service staff are not required to be nice to you like the poor sods working in the US are.  If you treat them rudely they will not hesitate to do the same.

Ok, one last story cause this really blew me away. Just this week I dropped a prescription to the pharmacy and one of the drugs I required was no longer available.  Not only did the pharmacist ring me to tell me, they also called the manufacturer of the drug, who was located in Austria, to find out why they were no longer making the drug and then, unbeknownst to me at the time, also called my doctor to let him know. Therefore when I turned up at the my doctor’s all ready to explain the whole story, he was already in the know and had a solution ready.  Now that is beyond good customer service.

Good customer service exists in Germany but you have to be a good customer in order to receive it.  Remember always be friendly, patient and understanding to the person behind the counter. Yes, this is just common decency but you would be surprised at the number of people who forget to do it. Speak as much German as you able to and don’t get upset if you screw up. In fact laughing at your mistakes will more often than not earn you a friend behind that counter for as long as you shop there. Yes, the level of customer service you receive here may be different to the level of customer service you get back home, but it is just different not worse.  Also, keep in mind that assholes exists everywhere in this world and are not confined to a certain nationality.

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16 thoughts on “The Truth About Customer Service In Germany

  1. So good to see you posting again Riyan!

    I second your sentiments about customer service in Germany. You get what you give here, and often people are curious about where you come from, and interested in having a quick exchange to break up the day.

    Sometimes it doesn’t work, but overall, I’ve found people are helpful the more you have to do with them. Germans are a bit like a plant that needs tending, and the more you gently tend the relationship the better it goes.


  2. Love you for sharing this insight. I have only been to the US once, but for me it was too much attention. I guess you are right that people are people.

  3. “You have to be a good customer to receive it” Sounds fair…just (at least in the UK) there seem to be a lot of bad customers walking around…not sure if we can afford to lose their business!

  4. Your post should be included included inside the “Stockholm Syndrome” category ;)

    I see you have a very understanding position, but you are far away from the truth.
    And the truth is that customer service here is really bad.
    It doesn’t matter if you are a smiling customer with a decent german, a smiling Italian/Spanish/Japanese/Canadian with a poor, but willing, German. Or a rude guy from itdoesntmatterwhere…. The rate of rude, impolite, ineffective staff you can find here, is unusual high for an European country (maybe competing with Frenchs for the 1st place).
    And I really don’t understand why.

    To put the blame on customers side is a bit twisted. Specially when talking about “Customer” service.

    Your job is to be helpful and willing to help, kind, responsive, etc…. with “good” customers will be a pleasure, however with “bad” ones you will have to make an extra effort…but it is a part of the job, its called Professionalism. The same way a Doctor must to do his best to heal not only “good” but “bad” patients.
    If you are not ready to behave like that regardless of the type of customer or your mood that morning, then it is not your job.

    Besides, every business owner , boss, customer service director, sales director, etc… will burn you if they lose a customer (i mean $$$ :D ) because of your behavior.

    • As I stated in the article, these impressions come from my experiences only and probably something I should have mentioned related mainly to Hamburg.

      I also work in Customer service, nowdays in IT but in the past in a vet office, cinema and cafe. I know what good customer service is and isn’t. I also know what it is like to deal with shitty, entitled customers and how those people unconsciously effect the service they receive from me.

      I have not experienced a general poor customer service level from the multitudes of customer service personal I deal with on a daily basis here in Hamburg. In fact, there are have many times where I have received what I feel is superior customer service.

      Again, I can’t comment on what customer service is like in your area of Germany. Perhaps it is a dreadful as you say it is. But certainly here in Hamburg, it doesn’t deserve the bad reputation that it currently has.

        • I must disagree. I also live in Berlin, granted only for a few months so far, but I go out A LOT – shops, restaurants, etc. – and interact with a lot of people in the service industry. I have not once (knock on wood) had a negative customer service experience. In fact, I have found people to be even more friendly and polite than they were, generally speaking, where I lived in western Germany for four years. As Meg said, so much is about who you are, where you’re going and how you react.

  5. German customers (myself included) expect some extent of arrogance from sales people because, if somebody smiles too much and is too nice, there might be something wrong with the product. “good products don’t need advertisement”. The sugary smile of american retail staff can be quite frightening for us…
    We don’t believe in people hiding their frustration and I think everybody understands that a waitress might sometimes feel like she’s in a dead end job…

  6. As as American, I admit that when I first arrived in Germany, it was really off-putting to feel like we were doing shops a favor just by being there or having to actually track down a staff member when we needed help. But after a few years of settling into this more relaxed shopping world of being left alone, I actually shudder at the thought of being back in a US shop, constantly hounded or trying to be sold something at every turn. If I needed a shopping buddy to follow me down every aisle and tell me I look great in those jeans that actually make my ass looks fat, I would have brought one.

    I too worked retail for nearly a decade and I can’t tell you how awful people in US felt they could treat service employees – condescending remarks, personal put-downs, downright threats – and yet we had to smile, be polite and still cater to customers who honestly deserved to be punched in the face. Perhaps it is with this rose-colored, I-can-act-however-I-please vantage point that Americans come here and judge German customer service so harshly. They are used to doling out the vinegar and being paid back with honey. I couldn’t agree with you more: as a general rule, you get back what you give – and Germans aren’t shy to reciprocate.

    That said, I take issue with one area of German customer service that has generally remained a constant throughout my years here, wherever I’ve been: the lack of initiative. I hesitate to say going above and beyond (as demonstrated in your prime example at the pharmacy – nice!), because I don’t think helping provide service to someone clearly seeking it is all that outside of one’s job description. German service professionals tend to answer inquiries directly, yes or no, and stop there. As someone who often has trouble finding my size – most notably in shoes – I would say that 99% of the time, if it’s not on a shelf, I leave empty handed. Not having the size I ask for almost never results in offering me to try an alternate size, or style, or other means (online counterpart, another store location) of finding said item. Never is there the glimmer of an idea as to how to get you what you are looking for if it is not in front of them. It’s just, nope, out of luck, blank stare. It is times like this I do actually miss US customer service, if only a little bit. At least then I would have a more well-rounded shoe collection. ;)

  7. I found customer service mostly great when I lived in Germany. The best thing was that in many shops the people working their actually new about their products and wanted to sell you the most appropriate one for you. In one place to the hillarious extent where the shop assisant very patiently listerned to my fairly awful german explaining what I was going to use the product for and then refused to sell it to me because it wouldn’t work (which it wouldn’t have). I found shop assisants in Germany incredibly patient and really helpful. Pharmacists in Germany are particularly amazing if you actually need advice, tho’ it can be a bit more challenging if you know what you want and need to explain why you want it!

  8. Pingback: The Week in Germany: Berlin in 24 Hours, German Customer Service, and Dirndl Advice | Young Germany

  9. You get back what you put in is true to a point. If you try to be positive and friendly, generally the sales staff and courteous back to you. But I will admit, I still find it slightly frustrating when I have to go hunting for a sales assistant to help or serve me. One one hand its good not to be pestered on the other its less good to feel ignored as a customer. Guess it’s a delicate balance:-) And the comment about assholes not being confined by geography – so, so, true:-) Great post

  10. You are dead right. I am German myself but moved away to UK 17 years ago. I frequently go back and forth so I get to experience the British and German customer service all the time. I have to say, the UK has nothing on Germany when it comes to serving customer. I don’t even know why M&S would call their staff shop assistants rather than just till operators.
    Perfect example, I went to M&S yesterday with the intention of buying two suits. Spend 30 minutes looking around, trying stuff on, going in and out of the changing rooms. Not once did I get some assistant asking me if I found what I am looking for.

    Next thing, I had to look for a smaller pair of trousers, so I asked an *assistant* to help and she just pointed at some random man saying “there is a man walking around this building with an iPad”, he can order these in for you. So clearly, I didn’t know who he was nor did I have time for that. So I went to the tills to check about another size, the woman said we can certainly order these in for you to try but you have to buy them upfront. I didn’t like that option and she just said: “oh but that’s ok cos if you don’t want them we just do a return there and then”. Tbh, i haven’t got time for that, nor am I going to buy a pair of trousers that I might not want. Like I say, I am in a bit of a hurry. So I left. With no suits.

    In Germany, whenever I have bought any clothing, I was always asked if I needed help and when I do, the staff are mega helpful. I have had staff run and fetch me different sizes, variations of colours, style advice as to what I want and so on… and these were common shops, nothing fancy, just a standard clothing shop. No way on earth would a fancy pants shop like M&S be able to help like that. Sorry, rant over.

  11. I have also had many experiences of rude customer service in Germany and I’m not American. Some Germans really lose their patience really fast towards a customer and start speaking in an impolite way.

    Of course I have received friendly service in Germany too, but those bad experiences have led me to think that customer service just isn’t that great in Germany.

    I’m also surprised when some Germans have hard time accepting that not all are happy with your customer service and they try to find excuses…

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